In the spring of 2013 quilter Joe Cunningham flew to Denver to film a class with Craftsy.com. ‘They treated me like gold,” he told me over the phone last week, recalling that trip fondly. “They paid me to develop the class and put me on an expense account while I was there. It was just great.” In a blog post published when the class launched he glowed about the experience. “They let me teach the class I wanted to teach in my own way, on my own terms,” he wrote.
Cunningham’s class proved to be financially worthwhile for him, too. “It was much better than writing a book. I made actual dough. It was almost too good to be true,” he told me. That was until last summer. In May, just a month after Craftsy was acquired by NBCUniversal, the company announced to instructors that it would be switching its main revenue model from a la carte class sales to a subscription model. All instructors had to sign new contracts that figured their pay based on minutes watched rather than a percentage of each class purchased or their classes would be retired. The day I spoke to Cunningham he had just received a royalty check. “My Craftsy income has fallen way off,” he said. “My check was about $60 or something.” Cunningham, who has been working in the quilting industry for 40 years, describes what’s happened to Craftsy as a “tediously ordinary story.”
“Corporate people just want to squeeze every dollar, but it’s difficult to monetize this movement,” he says. “It’s cultural impulses at war.”
A Shift in Model and Sale to NBC
Last month NBCUniversal rebranded Craftsy Unlimited as Bluprint, a video-on-demand subscription available for $14.99 a month. Some of NBCUniversal’s past attempts at video-on-demand subscriptions have failed. Last year the media conglomerate shut down Seeso, a comedy streaming service that failed to gain enough subscribers, and in 2014 it launched and shut down Radius, a $10 per month fitness video-on-demand service for the same reason. Amanda Lotz, professor of media studies at the University of Michigan and an expert in television and media companies says about video-on-demand, “We’re still in the Wild West of how to price these things, how to bundle content, and figuring out what people want.”
Bluprint launched with several exclusive series including Re:Fashion, an upcycling show starring actress Marcy Harriell of the sewing blog Ooonaballoona; The Stitch Dimension, a yarn show starring actress and knitter Kirsty Glass; and True Up, a quilting lifestyle show starring Angela Walters. All of these shows are what CEO and co-founder John Levisay described in a conference call with instructors on July 16 as “lean back entertainment content” intended to bring people into Bluprint and funnel them into classes. Craftsy.com remains and a la carte classes and craft supplies are still available on that site. When Craftsy shifted to a subscription service, first called Craftsy Unlimited and now Bluprint, every one of the twelve instructors I spoke said they saw a similarly dramatic drop in income as Cunningham, and most were feeling disappointed.
NBCUniversal initially declined to comment for this story. When I requested a list of instructors who were upbeat about the Bluprint rebrand they provided me with the following written statement on August 3: “We are two weeks into the official rebrand and we are excited about all of the new opportunities to come. We have always considered our instructors the lifeblood of the company. Our incentives are completely aligned as we both want revenue to go up. Over the past 8 years we have literally paid millions of dollars a year in revenue sharing. We knew that moving from an a la carte model to a membership model would necessitate a transition period in the short term, but remain confident that it is what is best for our customers, and eventually will be a great situation for our instructors. We ask for patience during this transition.”
Crochet designer Kim Werker believes this is the right move for the company, even though it means a financial hit for instructors like herself. “My income has also pretty much been cut in half, but that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t the obvious right direction for Craftsy. Their goal is to reach the most people possible, and to convert the most paying viewers as possible. They have a vast catalog of in-depth classes to build on, and I’m not sure I see the point in going on building that without building out and differently. And we all know from more than a decade of music streaming that streaming is a beast for creators, or in our case instructors,” she said.
Even so, she acknowledges that there’s been a breakdown in communication between Craftsy and the instructor community over the last year. There was a time when interacting with instructors was a company priority. In January 2016 Craftsy held an instructor summit, inviting instructors to Denver for a weekend of expert business and marketing training and listening intently to their concerns and questions. The event hasn’t been repeated. Instructors told me that now they have difficulty getting in touch with Craftsy to get their questions answered. In January of 2018 Craftsy informed instructors that the company would no longer be actively moderating the private Facebook group for instructors.
“Instructors used to feel like they were really part of Craftsy.com. We felt less like contractors and more like part of the company,” said Kate Colleran, whose first class, 3 Block, 30 Quilts, went live in May 2014.
“That’s gone away.” One instructor who wished to remain anonymous said, “I just don’t get the feeling that they care anymore. I think we’re being ignored. They’re off to the ‘oooh, shiny thing!’ and we’re no longer shiny.”
When the new contract was issued last summer the payment structure wasn’t the only significant change; it also extended the exclusivity clause. The original contract gave Craftsy the right of first refusal for a class on a subject substantially the same as the one presented in their Craftsy class before taking it to a competitor. The amended Craftsy contract included a “first look” clause granting Craftsy the right to look over any video the instructor would like to make on any subject at any time, not just those videos within the same subject area as their Craftsy class.
Many instructors negotiated this clause out of their reissued contracts before signing, but Cheryl Arksion chose not to go through that stress. She decided to retire her class. “I could see that the organization was changing and I could see the writing on the wall as far as how they were treating instructors,” she said. Plus, now she knew she had other options for creating a class herself. In 2010, when Craftsy launched, it was difficult for independent creators to self-publish online classes. Now, Arkison says, it’s not so hard. “The internet has changed. It’s so much easier now to produce an online class yourself on Teachable or Skillshare. As an instructor, you don’t need Bluprint or Creativebug or one of these companies to do it.
In the conference call with instructors Levisay acknowledged that revenue has dipped. “We hope to continue to bring a lot more people to the platform and percentage payments will go up. That’s the goal. The beautiful thing about the way this has been structured is that its mutually beneficial from a revenue perspective.”
But some instructors have their doubts that the content they created under the old model will prove compelling enough to the new Bluprint customers. One instructor I spoke with noted that Craftsy classes are very different from the Bluprint exclusive series. “I worry that what we made under the Craftsy model isn’t snackable and that’s what people want on Bluprint, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They’re channel surfing through the quilting content, as opposed to before when they said, ‘yes, I’m definitely interested in this and I’m buying this class.’ It’s going to take a whole lot more people to earn the same amount of money,” she said.
On the call Levisay emphasized, “We’ve always believed that instructors provide the backbone of domain knowledge that drives our site and makes it tick,” but many of the dozen I spoke with now feel disenchanted with the company. When fellow designers ask her how they can get a Craftsy class, one instructor said she doesn’t know how to respond anymore. “I can’t in good conscience recommend getting involved with them,” she said. “And I’m generally a very positive person.”